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Friday, February 18, 2011

Is the Army's Network the New Abrams Tank?

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The Army’s big modernization project—once known as Future Combat Systems, then Early Infantry Brigade Combat Team (E-IBCT), and now called the Brigade Combat Team Modernization (BCTM)—is slated to receive just $749 million in the fiscal 2012 budget, which is a pretty steep drop from the $2.2 billion it received in fiscal 2010. 
But that budget came before the modernization program had been stripped of all of its hardware. What was once a whole family of manned and unmanned ground and air vehicles, ground sensors, and a communications backbone that ties it all together has over the past two years been cut, canceled, and farmed out to other program offices. 
Really, all that’s left at this point is the network—which is what the whole thing was supposed to be about in the first place. And Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, the guy who is in charge of the Army’s brigade modernization efforts, says that that’s a good thing, since “the network of today is equivalent to the big five of modernization in the 80s—the Apache, the tank, et cetera.” Walker, commander of the Army’s Future Force Integration Directorate, says that after the past two years of cuts, “we spent the last year in transition, in the sense of the Army transitioning from a modernization strategy that was about Future Combat Systems to a modernization strategy that is now about brigade modernization.”
To continue testing the network and the Network Integration Kits and how they work with the emerging brigade structure, the 1st Armored Division is putting its entire 2nd Brigade into the field at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico this summer to conduct a rigorous 6-week field test.  
Col. Daniel Pinnell, Commander of the 2/1 says that contra the original FCS dream, testing last year proved that “we saw less of a requirement to push live video or still pictures from the squad level though to the brigade or battalion headquarters” than planners initially thought. “We’d [still] like the ability periodically to push vertical,” Pinnell says, even though “it’s more important to us to push horizontal. With the addition of texting or chat equivalents added to that, they got great utility out of that.”
The tests this summer will span a range of scenarios, with the 1/1 Calvary fielding three Troops, one equipped with MRAPs, one with Bradleys, and one with Strykers, in order to see how the Squadron commander manages those assets in light of “the experiences gained over the last six, seven years by us and others,” Pinnell says. The situation facing the 1/1 will be “fundamentally mechanized on mechanized” but also including “paramilitary as well as a limited number of cops in those areas of operation complicating the blue force commanders operations … he’s going to have to move to contact on a dirty battlefield.”
The brigade may also evaluate DARPA’s WNaN [Wireless Network after Next], which has a similar capability to the Rifleman’s Radio, and the Net Warrior system, which is the suite of sensors that grew out of the Army’s Land Warrior experiment which was given the ax in 2007. “There’s a Net Warrior surrogate which we will have in some capacity, and we’re going to continue connecting soldiers to digital applications,” Walker says.
When it comes to fielding smart phones, however, Walker says that “the individual soldier doesn’t need all this stuff, it probably needs to stop at team leader. [During testing] when each soldier had a smart phone and they were doing a raid we got the same kind of feedback. When I’m doing the raid I don’t really have a lot of time to screw around with a smart phone. On the other hand, we got the feedback of when I’m out on a traffic control point and I can use the biometric application on my cell phone.”
So it seems that the question for Army modernization is: how much technology is needed, and who needs it? The flameout of FCS shows that it might not be what the Army originally thought.

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